Bad Economy Vibes Are a Threat to Democracy
Too many Americans are willing to sacrifice constitutional government for a better-feeling economy.
DESPITE A BRIEF DIP IN ESTABLISHMENT SUPPORT for Donald Trump after the January 6th insurrection, he dominates the Republican party once again. Last October, he ended Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer’s bid to become House speaker with a single Truth Social post. (“They always bend the knee,” he said privately.) He has received endorsements from almost one hundred representatives and nineteen senators—compared to five and zero for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But the clearest indicator of Trump’s suffocating grip on the GOP is his massive lead in the polls—he’s up by about 50 points nationally.
After the GOP’s post-insurrection pivot, no Republican capitulation to authoritarianism and demagoguery is too hypocritical or undignified to come as a surprise anymore. Trump’s automatic support among the majority of Republican voters shouldn’t shock us, either—regardless of his ninety-one felony charges, increasingly deranged and apocalyptic promises to purge civil servants from government and install an army of loyalists, public embrace of insurrectionists, professed desire to terminate the Constitution, and obsession with the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Trump is the Republican party, and he has been for a long time. There are no better angels of the party in tension with Trumpist authoritarianism—voters want him to purge the Deep State and punish his political foes. They want revenge for the “stolen” election in 2020. When Trump says, “I am your retribution,” his supporters know he means it. He has no platform beyond his grievance-fueled plan to gut the government and destroy his political opponents.
Trump’s treatment of Emmer is a microcosm of what he’ll do in a second term. All he cares about is vengeance and loyalty, and governing won’t even be an afterthought. He wants the whole country to bend the knee.
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THE MOST ALARMING POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT of the past year isn’t the Republican party’s capture by Trumpism—that’s not news. It’s President Joe Biden’s unpopularity. Biden currently has a dismal 38 percent approval rating—around four points lower than Trump’s was at this point in his presidency. Beyond having justified concerns about Biden’s age, millions of voters (including many who aren’t addicted to Trumpism) don’t think he’s done a good job as president. While they’re understandably critical of him on issues like immigration, they also refuse to acknowledge what he’s done right—on foreign policy, working with a hostile Congress, and especially the economy. This has drastically increased the probability of a second Trump term.
Although inflation hit 9.1 percent in the summer of 2022, it’s down to around 3 percent today. What makes this rapid decline particularly remarkable is that the U.S. economy has so far managed to avoid much of the pain that typically accompanies getting inflation under control. After the Fed raised interest rates more aggressively than it has in decades, many economists were expecting a recession, but it hasn’t happened. The labor market remains strong and the unemployment rate is at just 3.7 percent. The United States has had 36 consecutive months of job growth, while unemployment has remained below 4 percent for almost two years straight. In March 2023, just 30 percent of economists thought the Fed could achieve a historically rare “soft landing” (significantly reducing inflation without a recession), but the proportion jumped to 69 percent by August.
Yet Americans aren’t impressed. A recent Pew survey found that 64 percent of American adults aren’t confident Biden can “make good decisions about economic policy,” including 39 percent who are “not at all confident.” Just 14 percent of Americans say they’re better off financially under Biden, while 70 percent say his policies have either hurt the economy or made no difference. At a time when Americans rank the economy as the most important issue by a vast margin, these are sobering numbers. What makes the widespread economic pessimism and hostility toward Biden even more puzzling is its misalignment with Americans’ behavior. Consumer spending has remained strong on the back of solid employment figures and wage growth, which demonstrates that Americans aren’t behaving as if the economy is as bad as they’re telling pollsters. And it’s strange to place all the blame on the Biden administration in the first place—inflation is a global problem, and many countries haven’t managed it as well as the United States.
The intense and widespread dissatisfaction with Biden’s economic performance is an emergency for American democracy. According to a recent New York Times/Siena survey, voters trust Trump over Biden on the economy by a chasm of 59 to 37 percent. Although Democrats relied on anxiety and anger over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade to galvanize voters in the midterms, the survey found that twice as many say the economy (versus social issues like abortion) would determine whom they vote for in 2024. And among those economy-focused voters, Trump is ahead by a margin of 60 to 32 percent. Even voters under the age of 30 trust Trump over Biden on the economy by a gap of 28 points. This is part of a larger trend—declining enthusiasm for the Democratic party among major demographics. Black, Hispanic, and young voters express significantly less overall support for Biden than they did in 2020. All these factors create a dire picture of the electoral map for Biden—Trump holds substantial leads in five out of six key swing states (Nevada, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania).
It’s no surprise that Republican voters are overwhelmingly likely to support Trump in 2024. But it is a surprise that so many Americans’ grievances about Biden outweigh the concerns about Trump that led them to vote against him in 2020. Trump’s effort to overthrow the 2020 election has been exhaustively documented since he left office, so any argument against his fitness for office back then has only become stronger in the years since. Beyond the hearings of the House January 6th Committee, Jack Smith’s indictment—a document that is available to any American, and that has been covered extensively in the media—presents the case for Trump’s guilt clearly and concisely. Even if voters can’t be bothered to watch the hearings or read the indictment, they witnessed the culmination of Trump’s effort to overthrow the election when rioters stormed the Capitol—a day that should live in infamy, but that is remembered for all the wrong reasons among the one-third of Americans who regard the insurrection as an example of “patriotism.”
Although a majority of Americans still condemn the January 6th insurrection, Trump’s standing in the polls shows that millions of voters—and not just those who can be dismissed as the MAGA faithful—don’t regard an attempted coup as a disqualification from the presidency. Trump’s campaign to subvert the 2020 election was the gravest threat to American democracy in generations. But instead of recognizing that Trump is an autocrat-in-waiting, voters are searching for any reason to reject the only obstacle standing in his way: Joe Biden.
SIXTY-TWO PERCENT OF AMERICANS say democracy could be at risk depending on the outcome of the 2024 election. And many voters believe that Biden—not the man who just tried to overthrow their democracy—is the one who poses the biggest threat. Eighty-two percent of Republicans think democracy would be weakened if Biden wins. One voter told PBS that the indictments of Trump are evidence of an anti-democratic conspiracy: “They’re trying to keep him from running because they know he’s going to win.” The recent Colorado Supreme Court decision to keep Trump off the state’s ballot will feed that theory, even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns it.
When Biden reminds voters that “democracy is on the ballot” in 2024, Trump accuses him of “pathetic fearmongering.” In a typical Trump inversion, he describes Biden as the “destroyer of American democracy” and blames his administration for the indictments. At a recent rally in Nevada, Trump declared that “they’re weaponizing law enforcement for high-level election interference because we’re beating them so badly in the polls.” Biden obviously has nothing to do with the charges against Trump, and he doesn’t talk about them because he wants to avoid creating any impression to the contrary. This is the right strategy, but it allows Trump to control the narrative. There’s a reason Trump wants cameras in the courtroom during his election interference trial—he plans to use his appearances in court as campaign events.
At a New Hampshire rally in December, Trump told the audience: “Every time the radical-left Democrats, Marxists, Communists, and fascists indict me, I consider it a great badge of honor. Because I am being indicted for you.” One of Trump’s most potent political strategies is what Steve Bannon described as “flooding the zone with shit.” After Trump’s effort to overthrow the 2020 election, it took an especially large and noxious flood of shit to present Biden as the anti-democratic authoritarian while positioning himself as the defender of American democracy. But as the polls indicate, Trump has somehow managed this feat. When the New York Times asked voters which candidate is better on the issue of democracy, Biden’s edge was just three points.
While Biden has steered away from discussing the indictments, he has made the resistance to Trump’s authoritarianism a core campaign message—just as he did in 2020. In a recent speech near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Biden described the defense of democracy as the “central cause” of his presidency, and said Trump was willing to “sacrifice democracy” to remain in power. Referring to January 6th, he accused Trump of one of the “worst derelictions of duty by a president in American history.” “In trying to rewrite the facts of January 6th,” Biden said, “Trump is trying to steal history the same way he tried to steal the election. But we knew the truth because we saw it with our own eyes.”
Millions of Americans who saw it with their own eyes are willing to give Trump a pass because eggs and milk cost a bit more. Of course inflation inflicts real pain on Americans, but even a cursory review of the evidence suggests that Biden has navigated this economic crisis as well as anyone could have hoped—and even better than many economists thought possible. A review of Americans’ collective bank accounts is even more illuminating—median net worth in the United States spiked by an unprecedented 37 percent between 2019 and 2022. What does it say about the United States that voters remain sympathetic to a man who tried to destroy their democracy because they feel like the economy is in bad shape? Now that Trump is broadcasting his plan to turn the government into his own personal fiefdom, Americans should be even more intent on blocking his return to power. Instead, they’re treating Trump as a completely normal candidate who could put a little more money in their pockets. This would be horrifying even if inflation and unemployment were twice as high as they are now.
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Mitt Romney was one of just seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump on the impeachment charge of inciting the January 6th insurrection. But he believes Americans are tired of hearing about democracy: “I think the threat to democracy pitch is a bust,” he recently said. “Jan. 6 will be four years old by the election. People have processed it, one way or another. Biden needs fresh material, a new attack, rather than kicking a dead political horse.”
While Biden should certainly keep campaigning on economic issues, Romney couldn’t be more wrong. Biden’s “democracy pitch” is the most important political message any presidential candidate has delivered in generations. The sacred American tradition of the peaceful transfer of power was cynically and ruthlessly broken just a few years ago, and the man responsible has a real chance of returning to the Oval Office. Biden is betting that the brutal and undeniable reality of these facts will mobilize Americans to defend their democracy against a would-be tyrant once again in 2024. If he’s wrong about that, Americans will soon discover that inflation is the least of their problems.